When Aja James, the daughter of Kansas City Mayor Sly James, told her father she wanted to write a children’s book with a cartoon version of him as the main character, the mayor didn’t hesitate.
“He was up for it from the beginning,” Aja James said. “It didn’t take much convincing. He was fine, as long as he didn’t look too silly.”
The colorful character in “Mayor Sly and the Magic Bow Tie: A Kansas City Adventure” certainly captures Sly James’ lighter side as he adventures back in time, through the magic of his trademark bow tie. Along the way, he teaches children about Kansas City’s past and introduces them to some of the city’s most influential leaders.
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Aja James, a University of Kansas graduate who is a trainer by trade, wrote the book with Audrey Masoner, a marketing manager for CenturyLink. The two met at a gym both frequented.
“Mayor Sly and the Magic Bow Tie” was officially released during an event at the Kansas City Public Library-Plaza Branch on Dec. 11.
It is the most recent project from Ascend Books, an Overland Park publisher that has pretty much cornered the market on local sports and celebrity literature. Ascend hooked up Aja James and Masoner with illustrator Rob Peters and shepherded all the other elements of the project through publication.
Bob Snodgrass has been the driving force behind Ascend since establishing the boutique publisher in 2008. Snodgrass said Ascend, which has a staff of three full-timers — including him — has put out four books this year but has released many more in previous years.
“We kind of fly under the radar a little bit,” Snodgrass said. “We’re focused on sports and entertainment, so the important thing for us is the celebrity status of the authors.”
Ascend also published last year’s “It’s a Sunny Life: An Adventure Fit for Rain or Shine!” by KSHB meteorologist Gary Lezak, as well as books by former Royals scout Art Stewart, former Royals standout Willie Wilson and former University of Kansas basketball coach Ted Owens.
Many books come to Ascend on referrals, but Snodgrass said he and his team also generate ideas — frequently tied to anniversaries such as the Chiefs’ 50th season — then assembles the writers, illustrators and editors to produce it. He said the process usually takes about a year, but a major exception was “From the Guys Who Were There: The Kansas City Royals” in 2015.
“The Royals won the World Series in October,” Snodgrass said, “and we had the book on the shelves by Christmas.”
Snodgrass, a native of Dayton, Ohio, landed in Kansas City in 1980 while working for a big publisher and has never left. He launched Ascend with a book by college basketball TV analyst Dick Vitale, whom he had met through his previous work.
Vitale has authored three other books for Ascend and is the company’s biggest seller.
Marv Levy is another celebrity who has written multiple titles for Ascend.
The 92-year-old former Chiefs coach wrote a children’s book called “Go Cubs Go!” that is rooted in his lifelong love affair with the Chicago Cubs. Published earlier this year within months of the team’s 2016 World Series championship, it tells the tale of Bruno the Bear taking his grandkids through his own journey as a fan.
Ascend also published a novel by Levy, “Between the Lies,” set in the world of professional football.
Most of Ascend’s books fall on the lighter end of the literary spectrum, but not all do.
“Guardian of the Golden Gate: Protecting the Line Between Hope and Despair,” written by Kevin Briggs with The Star’s Sam Mellinger, promotes suicide awareness and prevention.
Bob Ward, one of the early students of sports science and the NFL’s first full-time conditioning coach, authored Ascend’s “Building the Perfect Star: Changing the Trajectory of Sports and the People in Them.”
The meat and potatoes of Ascend’s publishing empire are books of local interest, however, with an emphasis on a children’s audience.
“Mayor Sly and the Magic Bow Tie” fills the bill on both counts.
Aja James and Masoner said the original premise was simply a children’s book focused on the mayor and Kansas City history.
“There is lots of cutesy stuff out there in children’s books, lots of crayons and things,” said Masoner, who has two children. “But this was a chance for kids to really learn something.”
“Originally, we had Dad showing a dog around Kansas City,” Aja James said. “But Gary (Lezak) had a dog book, so we changed that.”
The idea to use time traveling evolved through brainstorming and family discussions, as did the use of a magic bow tie.
“It was obvious to both of us that it had to be something that was with him all the time,” Masoner said. “It became blatantly obvious it had to be the bow tie.”
The authors said they showed their first version to Snodgrass, who pointed out the manuscript included no women. They inserted tales of the sisters who started Children’s Mercy Hospital and of Clara Stover of Russell Stover candies.
Other characters Sly James meets on his time traveling include Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Harry Truman and Satchel Paige. The city’s seedier side is nowhere to be found, however.
“It is a children’s book,” Masoner said.
She’s hoping this is not her last. Masoner said she’d like to write “something to teach kids basic supply-and-demand principles.”
And Aja James has set her sights on a children’s book that emphasizes the importance of physical activity.
Meanwhile, this might not be the last we see of that magic bow tie.
“There could be a sequel,” Masoner said. “The book is set up for a franchise. It is an educational platform more than anything else.”
Also on the bookshelf
Among the other books published by Ascend and available on ascendbooks.com:
▪ “Kansas City Chiefs ABCs and 1-2-3s” by Rob Peters, illustrator
▪ “Tigers vs Jayhawks: From the Civil War to the Battle for No. 1” by Mark Godich
▪ “For Wildcats Fans Only!: Wonderful Stories Celebrating the Incredible Fans of the Kansas State Wildcats” by Kent Pulliam with Rich Wolfe
▪ “For Jayhawks Fans Only!: Wonderful Stories Celebrating the Incredible Fans of the Kansas Jayhawks” by Matt Fulks with Rich Wolfe
▪ “For Tigers Fans Only!: Wonderful Stories Celebrating the Incredible Fans of the University of Missouri Tigers by Bill Althaus, Rich Zvosec and Rich Wolfe
▪ “Let’s Go Yankees! An Unforgettable Trip to the Ballpark” by Scott Pitoniak
▪ “Finding My Father’s Voice: A Baseball Love Story” by Leigh Ann Walker (daughter of baseball great Rube Walker) with Chuck Carlson
▪ “The Shame of Me: One Man’s Journey to Depression and Back” by Ryan Lefebvre with Jeffrey Flanagan